Gourmet cooks swear by their fancy professional stoves with six gas burners, convection ovens and warming drawers, but I believe the real kitchen workhorse is the slow-cooker — especially for people who use wheelchairs, have limited use of their hands or find conventional ovens and stovetops difficult to use.
Rival introduced the Crock-Pot (a trademarked name) to consumers in the 1970s. The word “crockpot” has become so common it is now a generic term that is interchangeable with slow cooker.
The first slow cooker I owned was a wedding gift. The only recipes I had were the ones that came tucked inside my Rival Crock-Pot with the instruction booklet.
One evening, I chopped onions, potatoes and carrots and put them in the crockpot along with stew meat and seasoning. The next morning, before heading out to work, I pulled the crock out of the fridge and turned it on low. After a long day on the job, it was nice to walk in the door and be greeted by the aroma of a home-cooked meal.
I’ve cooked in this easy-to-use appliance for decades. My original crockpot has been replaced with a sleek stainless steel model and I’ve expanded my recipe file.
If you haven’t tried slow cooking, you are in for a surprise. Even if you have cooked with a slow cooker for years, you will be impressed with the variety of recipes and the modern features of today’s slow cooker.
There are dozens of slow cookers on the market. The size you want depends on the size of your family; slow cookers should be about two-thirds full to work properly. Consider that the shape needs to accommodate the food. An oval shape works well for roast and whole chicken. If you plan to cook a whole chicken or roast, a 6-quart oval is a nice size. Programmable versions allow the cook to determine the time a dish cooks. Handy accessories include a baking rack, thermometer, and carrying case.
Hamilton Beach makes several models. The Hamilton Beach Deluxe Set & Forget 6 Quart Slow Cooker has a built-in lid rest, extra-large grip handles and a thermometer. The Hamilton Beach Premiere Cookware Slow Cooker has a removable cast-aluminum insert that’s great for browning meats on top of a stove. Hamilton Beach 3-in-One Slow Cooker comes with three sizes of bowls to cook everything from an appetizer to crowd-sized chili. The two-, four- and six-quart bowls stack inside one another for easy storage. Additional features such as timers and thermometers make the cooker even more convenient.
Cuisinart Rice Plus Multi-Cooker with Fuzzy Logic Technology cooks six kinds of rice and is a steamer and a slow cooker in one. Rival has the Duo Cook & Serve Slow Cooker, which is ideal for entertaining.
Save time and review the choices online (see resources, below). Once you have narrowed the options, visit the local retail stores to examine the various brands and features up close.
The Crock-Pot brand has an online community called Crock-Stars. Fans of the slow cooker can exchange recipes, read tips, hear about new product news and receive a newsletter. To sign up, visit www.Crock-Pot.com.
Joe Simmer’s American Slow Cookin’
Fix It & Forget It Series
Betty Crocker: The Big Book of Slow Cooker, Casseroles & More, Betty Crocker, Wiley 2010
The Everything Healthy Slow Cooker Cookbook, Rachel Rappaport, F+W Media Inc., 2010
More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow: 200 Brand New Recipes for the Slow Cooker Meals on a Budget, Stephanie O'Dea, Hyperion January 1, 2011
Q: Is it necessary to brown meats before putting them in the slow cooker?
A: No. We conducted numerous recipe tests, with and without browning the meat, and the difference in flavor of the finished dishes was minuscule, if detectable at all. Being able to add meat directly to the slow cooker without browning saves precious preparation time, plus saves having extra dishes to wash!
Q: How can you tell when meat is done?
A: In a soup or stew, meat will be fork tender when done — use the recipe timing as a guide. In cooking tender roasts that you want to slice at the table, place a meat thermometer in the center of the roast, not touching fat or bone. Recipe directions will give doneness temperatures for you to check. A bonus of cooking roasts in the slow cooker is that they are more moist than when roasted in the oven! Chapter 13, "Other Entrees," has many delicious recipes for beef and pork roasts, whole poultry and more.
Q: Can you make a meal that’s "fancy enough for company" in the slow cooker?
A: For truly special occasions you might try Beef Burgandy, Moroccan Chicken Stew with Couscous, Pork Roast with Mango Chutney, and Sherried Chicken.
Q: Do you cook in a slow cooker? What is your favorite dish?
A: Yes I cook in a slow cooker! I especially like cooking bean recipes in the slow cooker, because you don't have to soak the beans! For an unusual bean side dish, I love the Brazilian Bean Bake. Coffee Pot Roast is a favorite, also Chicken Liver Pate, Red Snapper with Caramelized Garlic Sauce, Ziti with Eggplant Meatballs, Hot Muffuletta, Pulled Pork Sandwiches Southern-Style, New York-Style Cheesecake, and Poached Pears with Fruit in Rosemary Syrup.
I also like cooking whole vegetables, such as a head of cauliflower or a whole eggplant in the slow cooker. The cauliflower is spectacular served whole, and I like the time saved in not having to cut up the cauliflower! The slow cooker saves energy, and I don't have to heat up a large oven to cook one eggplant.
Q: What is the greatest advantage to using a slow cooker?
A: The greatest advantage of a slow cooker is convenience. A recipe can be assembled when time allows and refrigerated in the crock, then plugged in and cooked when you want. Using a slow cooker eliminates many time-consuming preparation steps, such as browning and sauteing. Clean-up time is minimal. The meal cooks itself, allowing you to do other out-of-the-kitchen things with your time.
Curious about the recipes mentioned above? Click on the links below for recipes from Sue Spitler and Stephanie O'Dea, authors of 1,001 Best Slow-Cooker Recipes and More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow, respectively. You can also download a pdf of these recipes, which you can cut out and add to your own family's cookbook.